“It comes down to one thing…people. There are just too many people.” These are the words spoken by legendary Charlotte Harbor angler Tommy Parkinson long before the modern crowds of anglers transformed Boca Grande into the mess it is today. In the early1880s the sport fishing industry in Southwest Florida changed forever. The discovery of an incredible tarpon migration to the deep holes of Boca Grande Pass coincided with a big game tackle revolution. Pioneers of the sport were eager to test their new gear against the mighty silver king, and in 1908 the Izaak Walton Fishing Club was setup on Useppa Island and fishing tourism took off. Since then, the Boca Grande tarpon fishery has evolved into a worldwide attraction for anglers of all ages and all skill levels.
Recreational and charter boats alike flock to the deep holes of Boca Grande Pass each spring with one thing in mind, creating what is arguably the most concentrated crowd of fishing boats on the planet. The tarpon still show up every spring, thanks to strict regulations and limits, but with so many boats fishing such a small area at the same time, the fishery is often more frustrating than fabulous.
When your bait gets engulfed the bite will be unmistakable and there is no need to set the hook like a crazed bass angler.
Personally, I despise fishing near crowds so I avoided the pass for 28-years while growing up in South Florida. Everything changed last year when my father surprised me with the news that he was moving to Boca Grande. With a sense of excitement in his voice, he told me that he had finally found a place that reminded him of Old Florida. The Florida he loved and cherished while growing up in Miami. I took his word for it and on my first visit I could tell that this was a very special place indeed. We hired Captain Mark Liberman as a guide to introduce us to the area’s fishery, and I immediately fell in love. Mark taught us about the history and ethics of Boca Grande tarpon fishing, and after a few trips we had developed a deep appreciation for the pioneers of this fishery. We fished several tournaments with Mark and realized that it was our competitive spirit that allowed us to have so much fun in such chaotic conditions. However, it wasn’t until the late summer when we realized the true beauty of Boca Grande.
By July, the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is over. The snowbirds have headed home, and Boca Grande becomes somewhat of a ghost town. Many of the island’s restaurants and retail outlets close for the season, and the anglers that crowded the pass months before seem to disappear all at once. Besides a couple of local tournaments and a handful of charter operations, the deep trenches of the pass are left unpressured as thousands of tarpon feed and spawn in peace. In fact, the tarpon often stick around until November when cooler water temperatures send the last of these great gamesters packing. That leaves over four months of incredible fishing for the fortunate few who can make it to the pass during the off-season. We battled dozens of trophy fish last summer without another boat in sight, having experienced some of the most exciting fishing of our lives.
Without a doubt the most action-packed time to fish for these summer tarpon is during the hill tides, which occur around new and full moon periods. During these strong tides, the pass comes alive with crabs as they drift offshore with the outgoing tide. The crabs can be scooped out of the water with dip nets and free-lined in the same areas where the tarpon are busting the surface. When this phenomenon is occurring, heavy spinning gear with braided line is the key to getting off long, quick casts in the direction of rolling fish. The locals refer to these tides as “idiot tides” because hooking up with tarpon during a strong crab run doesn’t require too much experience or skill. The only trick is to make sure your crabs are free-lined with no resistance, a feat accomplished by keeping an open bail on your reel and idling your boat into the wind.
If the crabs aren’t running or the tarpon aren’t keen on crunchy crustaceans, it’s time to fish the deeper holes with frisky live baits. Top offerings include squirrelfish, pinfish, and threadfin herring. The standard live bait setup for fishing the deeper depths is an 8-foot 50lb. class conventional outfit with a smooth drag and 50 to 80lb. braid. A 2 to 4 oz. egg sinker should be rigged to slide above the swivel, which is connected to 8 to 12-feet of 80lb. fluorocarbon leader and a large circle-hook. Once your rig is setup, you may want to mark your braided line with a sharpie marker or wax thread at various depth intervals to let you know exactly how deep your bait is below the surface. The tarpon will usually be feeding anywhere from 25 to 80-feet below, depending on the tide and bait movement through the pass. Feeding tarpon will appear as large blobs on your depth finder, so pay close attention and drop as soon as you start recording fish on your sounder. You will want to keep the bait in the strike zone just off the bottom, as the holes in the pass are very unforgiving. When your bait gets engulfed the bite will be unmistakable and there is no need to set the hook like a crazed bass angler. If your hook is sharp, the initial run will be enough to drive the point home.
Landing silver kings in the pass becomes much easier during the summer off-season when you don’t have to worry about other boats running over your trophy. However, even if there aren’t any boats in sight it’s important to practice the code of ethics for Boca Grande fishing at all times so you can be prepared when other boats do show up. This code can be found at www.bocagrandefishing.com, the website for the Boca Grande Guides Association. This website also has an extensive list of the best guides around, including a few who stick around all summer long when the crowds thin out. If you are unfamiliar with the area, try hiring one of these guides for your first couple of outings and I guarantee it will help you grow an even deeper appreciation and understanding of this amazing fishery.
Every guide will tell you that one of the most important rules in the code of ethics is not to chase fish once hooked. As long as you are using heavy braid or dacron line, you should be able to maneuver your boat away from the main school, slowly pulling your hooked fish away from the pack to a less crowded area. Again, you can practice this technique even on the days when there are no other boats in sight.
As the summer season progresses, Boca Grande Pass teems with life as large schools of snapper and grouper take residence around the same holes and ledges as the tarpon. During these months I have found that drifting small whitebait near the bottom can be equally effective for all of the local inhabitants. I vividly recall one day last August when we were drifting the deeper holes for snapper and were surprised by multiple tarpon in the 40 to 100-pound class, as well as some real trophy mangroves. Summer is also the time of year when the chance of fishing alone greatly increases; just keep an eye out for nasty afternoon thunderstorms and ravenous sharks. Fishing smaller whitebait will require a smaller hook, yet one that’s strong enough not to straighten out on a 100-pound tarpon. Owner and Gamakatsu both manufacture hooks of this nature and they are well worth the few extra bucks. Using the proper tackle will help you put the heat on these fish that’s necessary to ensure a healthy release.
If you can make it to Boca Grande during the quiet months of the off-season you will definitely look at this fishery in a different light. Boca Grande Pass is a true wonder of nature. Experiencing it without the crowds allows you to appreciate the importance of this fertile ecosystem. Occasionally a strong tropical storm or hurricane will push the tarpon out by early fall, but most of the time they will stick around until the waters cool down in the beginning of winter. One thing is for sure; these prehistoric monsters will return every spring, enduring months of constant angling pressure until July when they are left alone to frolic in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
I think we’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.
Along with massive tarpon Boca Grande is also home to gargantuan sharks. Hammerhead and bull sharks enjoy a healthy living here with a nearly unlimited food source – tarpon, hence the reason for sturdy tackle. Beefed up outfits and heavy line facilitate shortened battles and assist in ensuring the welfare of these glamorous game fish.